Far from the ubiquitous strip malls and congested highways of his hometown, Miami-based artist Robert Chambers stood under a vast sky in the scrub brush of the Everglades. There, he contemplated the Serenoa repens, an often-overlooked native plant with a crucial role in this complex and fragile ecosystem. The ground-hugging palm, whose common name is the saw palmetto, became the focus of his new body of work that melds art, sceince and technology and highlights the critical need to preserve the biodiversity of the Everglades. Visitors to the AIRIE Nest Gallery in the Everglades National Park can see Chambers’ work in the exhibition SEREPENS: Serenoa repens through April 14, 2019.
The subject was a natural for Chambers, who grew up immersed in scientific inquiry as the son of a cellular molecular biologist and a metalwork sculptor. In early 2018, he was a fellow in the AIRIE (Artist in Residence in Everglades) program. The non-profit organization and voice for conserving the ecology of the region has since 2011, brought over 150 artists, writers, composer and choreographers to Everglades National Park for one-month residencies. During Chamber’s AIRIE residency, he engaged with scientists from the Archbold Biological Station, a renowned ecological research center, and became intrigued by the saw palmetto’s tenacity in the Florida scrub at the headwaters to the Everglades north of Lake Okeechobee.
One of the oldest plants on earth, with a life-space over 5,000 years, the saw palmetto thrives in drought and fire. Though it has survived for millennia, its existence is now threatened by changing weather patterns and rising sea levels. A centerpiece of the exhibition is a sculpture of the plant’s unique clonal root system, the source of its super power, which forms a protective mesh beneath the ground. The sculpture’s black tubular forms a studded “alligator back” surfaces, created with cellulose fibers and 3D printing, evoke its fire-proof exterior that remains after a burn. The sculpture sits on a wood table base produces though computer-guided milling with a surface that simulated naturally occurring patterns in the porous limestone bedrock below the ground.
The saw palmetto’s medicinal qualities, actively marketed in everything from hair supplements to virility enhancers, have made its precious berries the target of aggressive harvesting and poaching, feeding a $700-million-dollar herbal industry. With the aid of 3D modeling software, Chambers produced interpretations of these fruits, which also provide nutrients for many other Everglades species. His sculptures reveal their matrix-like sinews, whose otherwordly aura hint at their ages-old mystical properties. Complimenting the berries are futuristic insects that represent the hundreds of pollinating species who use the plant as a natural highway rest stop. The translucent creates are rendered in polyactic acid, a nontoxic filament resin made of sugar derived from starches.
In creating the works for the exhibition, Chambers collaborated with teams from Florida International University’s Robotics and Digital Fabrication Laboratory, Miami Beach Urban Studios and College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts.
Working with digital technology was a means for the trained sculptor to go beyond his safe zone. “I’m now in a new medium,” Chambers days, “a whole new place that can go anywhere.”